|| Vatican excommunicates Balasuriya
By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
In the way split images mesh when a camera is focused, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's crusade against relativism fused in early January with the ministry of one of Asia's best-known theologians and priests.
The result: Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith zoomed in on Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, 72. In an unusually harsh penalty delivered on Jan. 2, Balasuriya, of Sri Lanka, was declared excommunicated under Canon 1364, a church law that applies to apostates and heretics.
As an excommunicated cleric -- only the second priest to be so severely punished in recent times -- Balasuriya may neither receive nor administer the sacraments, though he remains a priest unless formally dismissed, according to James Coriden of Washington, an expert in canon law.
Expulsion from Balasuriya's international religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, could follow, depending on his future actions, according to Oblate Fr. Alexander Tache, an official of the order in Rome.
Coriden said he thought that unlikely, and, indeed, Tache said he hopes, rather, for reconciliation. In a statement issued Jan. 4, the Oblate official said he hoped that Balasuriya would "take the necessary steps toward reconciliation with the church, which it has always been his desire to serve."
In such cases, opportunity exists for reconciliation and reinstatement at any time, Coriden said.
Balasuriya has repeatedly said he regards the Vatican's procedure against him as unjust. In a Jan. 8 telephone interview from his Center for Society and Religion in Sri Lanka, he said he planned to appeal to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the judicial body with authority to determine whether procedures in his case followed canon law.
He also set out his position in a written statement. There he said, "I maintain that the charges made against me are incorrect in relation to what I have written. I have not said what they say I have said." He maintained that he had been denied due process, that his writings are within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, and that many Western writers had expressed similar views without threat of excommunication.
Although resolute in defense of his orthodoxy, Balasuriya is in effect upping the ante in the conflict. In the interview, he said he considered the congregation's action to be "providential" because it is sure to make his views on Jesus and Mary better known. He added that he had been speaking with publishers interested in giving wider distribution to his fateful book Mary and Human Liberation.
So far, publication of the book has been limited to only a few hundred English copies printed by his own center. He staunchly defends his way of expressing Christian teachings as necessary in a part of the world where Christians are a small minority -- just 8 percent in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka.
Tache, the Oblate official mediating with the Holy See in the case, said Oblates hope that Balasuriya will agree to the Vatican's terms, which include signing a profession of faith, and be restored to the church. On the other hand, "depending on his reaction," the order could formally expel him under provisions of canon law, he said.
The 1800-word notification of Balasuriya's excommunication was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In a final paragraph citing Canon 1364 of the church's official Code of Canon Law, Ratzinger wrote, "Fr. Balasuriya has deviated from the integrity of the truth of the Catholic faith and therefore cannot be considered a Catholic theologian; moreover, he has incurred excommunication latae sententiae" -- that is, automatically, as a result of his actions.
The Vatican notification accused Balasuriya at least three times of "relativizing" or "relativism" in his approach to Christian teachings in his book on Mary. In October, Ratzinger said relativism would be his new target in his efforts to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy in the worldwide church.
The notification was dated "2 January 1997, the feast of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors of the church." The two fourth-century figures successfully defended orthodox teachings on Jesus against Arians who denied the divinity of Christ.
Ratzinger said Balasuriya's book on Mary contains "a series of grave errors" which "to different degrees are distortions of the truths of dogma and are, therefore, incompatible with the faith.
"Fr. Balasuriya does not recognize the supernatural, unique and irrepeatable character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, by placing its presuppositions on the same level as those of other religions. In particular, he maintains that certain 'presuppositions' connected to myths were uncritically assumed to be revealed historical facts and, interpreted ideologically by the clerical 'power holders' in the church, eventually became the teaching of the magisterium.
"Fr. Balasuriya assumes, moreover, a discontinuity in the economy of revelation," Ratzinger wrote. "In fact, he distinguishes between the faith due in Christianity to what Jesus teaches and to what the churches have subsequently developed as interpretations of his teaching" -- interpretations that were influenced by "political and cultural interests. This position involves, in fact, the denial of the nature of Catholic dogma and, as a consequence, the relativizing of the revealed truths contained in them."
Further, Ratzinger said that Balasuriya had failed to explicitly acknowledge the "divine sonship" of Jesus and had only "doubtfully acknowledged" his "salvific function."
According to Ratzinger's notification, Balasuriya also denies the dogma of original sin and certain Marian dogmas such as the doctrines of the immaculate conception and the assumption, and, by extension, denies "the authority of tradition as a mediation of revealed truth."
Further, the document contends that Balasuriya, by "denying and relativizing some statements of both the extraordinary magisterium and the ordinary universal magisterium," had in effect refuted papal infallibility.
Despite the limited distribution of Balasuriya's book, it caught the attention of Sri Lankan bishops in June 1994. Warning of heretical statements, the bishops counseled Catholics to avoid reading the book. In the two and a half years since, Balasuriya has been engaged in continual conflict with church authorities regarding his beliefs.
He has refused to sign a profession of faith provided him by the Vatican -- one that explicitly endorses the church's opposition to ordaining women. In his written statement, he said his "serious life commitment" could not be reduced to a profession of faith intended to "buy" him a place in the Catholic communion.
The request that he sign the profession followed a breakdown in dialogue. Balasuriya, asked by Ratzinger to respond to doctrinal concerns, wrote a lengthy letter saying that officials had misinterpreted his work.
In addition, Balasuriya signed a profession of faith written by Pope Paul VI. "If I am not a Catholic theologian, then Paul VI is not," Balasuriya said in the interview.
But Ratzinger said in his Jan. 2 document that Balasuriya had rendered that profession of faith "defective" by adding a caveat. It said that Balasuriya agreed with the tenets "in the context of theological development and church practice since Vatican II and the freedom and responsibility of Christians and theological searchers under canon law."
At another point in the ongoing conflict, according to Tache, Balasuriya threatened to take the bishops of Sri Lanka before the state Mediation Board on a charge of defamation, along with editors who published the bishops' 1994 denunciation of his book. He later changed his mind.
In December, Balasuriya appealed personally to Pope John Paul II, who, according to Tache, responded by saying that he had been following the case and agreed with the decisions of Ratzinger's congregation.
Balasuriya said a petition is circulating globally on his behalf, asking the pope to grant him a "fair judicial trial in keeping with the provisions of the canon law of the church."
He added, "Third World theologians and many of my friends say they will always regard me as a priest. Priesthood is not merely an external sacramental function. My understanding of priesthood is one who gives his life for the cause of making Jesus and Mary better known, of human rights and justice and the rights of women. So I remain a priest in that sense.
"I am much more in the community of disciples of Jesus than ever before," he said. "There is also a mystical, spiritual communion. Maybe legally I am cut off but spiritually I am more in communion than ever before. The CDF has put me in communion with people all over the world. This is a beautiful experience in life, so I think there is something providential in this."
As for the Vatican's potential negative reaction to wider distribution of his book, Balasuriya said, "Our task is to make people happy to bear witness to Jesus and Mary for who they were known in reality."
Although a number of clerics have been deprived of their status as Catholic theologians in recent years, the only priest to be excommunicated in recent times was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. He denounced the teachings of Vatican II and finally incurred the ultimate penalty in 1988 for ordaining four bishops to his traditionalist movement in defiance of the Holy See.
National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997